“Make no mistake, a Middle East without Christians would be just like the Taliban,” warned Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako.
Reflecting on the massive emigration of Christians from the Middle East, the most senior Catholic leader in Iraq appealed to the international community Dec. 14 to convince Muslim states that repression and persecution of Christians not only harms Christians but Muslim societies themselves. “All should work to stop the mortal exodus,” he implored.
The patriarch made the comment at a timely Rome conference examining Christianity’s legacy in promoting religious freedom over the past two millennia. The two-day meeting was organized by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, part of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
Although currently proportionately less than when communism was still in force in 1970, the numbers of Christians affected by persecution is far greater today, and the proportion is rising.
Twenty percent of the world’s Christians live in countries where they are likely to be persecuted. That proportion is expected to rise to 23.5 percent by 2020, affecting 600 million people, according to Todd Johnson, director and associate professor of global Christianity at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity,
Christians are the most widely persecuted religious group today, living in a total of 133 nations. These include those in remaining communist nations, south Asian religious nationalist nations, Muslim nations, authoritarian states, and western secular nations.
Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute told the conference that Christians are targeted in part because they do not admit that the state is the final arbiter in all human affairs.
"Christians are often subject to persecution by those who have a monistic conception of the social order and the state — that there is one order of the authority in society, represented by the state, to which all must submit,” he said.
Fox News analyst and conference moderator Kirsten Powers asked why the mainstream media, often labeled as “liberal,” paradoxically fails to cover such repressive regimes, or covers such persecution poorly.
Marshall, referring to a book he had written called “Blind Spot — When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” said one reason is that many journalists have a secular mindset, one which doesn’t recognize that religion shapes human beings.
“What drives people [to them] is money, sex, and power,” he said, and he pointed to a tendency of journalists to focus on these driving forces when looking behind the story.
Regarding Christianity in particular, Marshall said part of the reason for poor coverage is a “very dated” image of Christians who are generally seen as “white, western males and Western colonialists, which means you might not notice them elsewhere, or view persecution is an anti-colonial reaction.”
Several speakers argued that the concept of religious freedom has its roots in Christianity. The Holy See’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, said the concept of human rights also has its origins in the Christian faith.
He recalled that the Christian Emperor Constantine and his Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. represented “the beginning of a process which has marked European history and that of the entire world, leading in the course of the centuries to the definition of human rights and the recognition of religious freedom as 'the first of human rights.'”
And he argued that all human beings are impelled to seek the truth and can only do so in freedom based on reason and faith.
“It is in the truth, seen not so much as an absolute which we already possess, but as the potential object of rational and relational knowledge, that we encounter the potential for a sound exercise of freedom,” he said. “And it is precisely in this connection that we discover the authentic dignity of the human person.”
Former professor of history at the University of Virginia, Robert Louis Wilken, recalled that it was the early Church father Tertullian who was the first to use the term ”religious freedom” and that it was he and Lactantius, an adviser to Constantine, who made the case that religion, because it springs from inner conviction, cannot be coerced. Their thinking later formed the basis of some Protestant thinkers.
Although many think religious freedom as understood in the West was the product of the 18th-century Enlightenment, Wilken said most original thinking on the subject took place in the early 17th century by those who were persecuted.
He said it was not possible to “draw a straight line” from the 18th century back to the early church and the scriptures. “The breakup of the medieval order as the result of the Reformation, the proliferation of religious communities, were powerful factors in shaping thinking on religious freedom,” he said.
Even so, he said ideas about a freedom of religion as a natural right, and the non-coercion of religious conviction “have their ultimate roots in Christian tradition.”
Partly for this reason, Patriarch Sako and other Christian leaders facing persecution would like to see more action on their behalf from the historically Christian and influential nations of the West.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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